The Ultimate Guide to Teaching in Thailand
by Vern Lovic
© 2010 Apornpradab Buasi. All rights reserved.
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Table of Contents
Some Background Info
Before Leaving Home
First Few Days in Thailand
How Much Can You Earn?
Choosing the Right Area to Live
Staying Connected – Internet Connections
Legal Requirements for Teaching
More on Teaching in Thailand
Types of Teaching Positions
What is Teaching a Thai Class Really Like?
Teaching Kindergarten through Adults
Classroom Control and Discipline
Teaching Private Classes
Working in Thailand without Teaching – alternatives
Thailand Teaching FAQ – Questions & Answers
20 Positives About Teaching English in Thailand
25 Money-Saving Tips
Helpful info and phone numbers, etc.
Calling this the “Ultimate Guide to Teaching in Thailand” is leaving me wide open for criticism, but if I don’t get criticism I’ll never have the hands-down, undisputed, and ultimate teaching book for foreigners coming to Thailand to teach.
Seriously – I welcome all input, good and bad, because I really do want to make it the best book available on this important subject.
The format for this information is an ebook. Ebook style is different from regular books, and my style of writing comes across much better when I write as you see here. I’ve used contractions liberally to shorten this work up. Depending on which version you order, the line spacing, colors and photos will be different. This is a function of pairing the formatting to the ebook type. For instance, with PDF format -images, colored headings, line-spacing, headers and footers, all come out “normally” and I can basically just turn a Word Doc into a PDF quickly and without thinking about special formatting.
Most ebook formats are not geared to accept photos, line spacing, headers and footers, or other special formatting that we all take for granted as writers, and users of word processors. Serious formatting changes had to occur before rendering the work into these ebook formats for iPhone, Sony’s eReader, Kindle, Nook, etc. Anyone that orders one of these formats will also receive a copy of the full PDF version so they can view all the photos and see the formatting all pretty.
Probably you have already decided on the “why” of teaching in Thailand or you wouldn’t have bought this book. I chose Thailand for many reasons, not least of which is the relative stability of the country in terms of favorable cost of living, safety, and opportunities for fun and exploration.
Though Thailand’s political landscape is in non-stop flux, cycling over and over between those in power and those who wish to be, the expatriates living here have a relatively stable experience. Over the past five years living in Thailand I’ve yet to fear for my life. I’ve yet to have any serious issues with arranging visas, work permits, and the like. Now that I have a small family, I feel right at home in Thailand and don’t anticipate moving anytime soon.
I was a teacher for a couple of years in Thailand. I have a master’s degree in counseling psychology from the USA and I’ve worked with children with sexual and physical abuse in the past. I have also been a soccer coach for 7 – 9-year-olds on a couple of different occasions over the years. I have had some good experiences teaching kids in the USA in these limited capacities. I’ve not taught a classroom full of children (30 or so) before coming to Thailand and jumping into it.
If you don’t have experience and you’re worried about that, you should know, so too is everyone else. Coming to Thailand to teach presents you with many unknowns. The only way you’re going to start feeling comfortable is to get some months teaching under your belt.
Succeeding as a teacher of English in Thailand is not easy. You have to love kids. You have to be open to the new experiences that will present themselves to you, or sometimes, as it seems – smack you in the face. You have to be willing to give more than you thought you would – because Thai kids need to be taught a certain way. The way Thais learn has been the same for many years, and you won’t change it by teaching Tasmanian style, Fijian style, or enforcing your own military code of conduct – though I gave it my best effort on this last one.
Thailand is an absolutely unique place. Thais are a unique group of people. They are lovely people, and you’ll probably have a great time of teaching if you’re ready to give it your all and face the new experiences with open arms.
There is nothing but new experienceS here in comparison to what you knew in America, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, or wherever you hail from. Be careful not to think this is your home country and that you should teach Thai students the way you were taught.
My experiences and those of the teachers I knew and worked with over the years form the factual background for this guide. As a preparation, I did a meta-review of the books available on teaching in Thailand as well as reviewing many of the teaching resources available online. Sources I used online in compiling this guide are mentioned in the Resources section at the end of this book.
This guide is meant to provide the “big picture” about teaching in Thailand. Many expats teaching here – love it, and remain in Thailand years on end. Others, after a term or two before throwing in the towel and calling it quits. I hope, in giving you as much information about the reality of teaching in Thailand as I can, it helps you make a decision before you arrive.
If there is anything in this ebook you find to be incorrect – in fact, I ask that you write to me so I can straighten it out. Some of my goals for this guide include keeping it as factual as possible, along with keeping the content current and relevant to all expats considering moving to Thailand to teach.
The opinions expressed here are mine. You may agree with them or not – I try to
present opposing viewpoints often, but not always.
Some Background Info
Many expats arrive in Thailand thinking they can teach. That’s true, and it’s not. If you’re not fully prepared and qualified for teaching the English language to Thais – you can’t call yourself a teacher, nor are you doing the Thais any favors by being here. Thais pay a lot of money for English classes. They need the classes, of that there’s no question! Thailand lags behind other Asian countries in the in reading, writing, and speaking English.
Many expats in Thailand ‘fall back’ on teaching as they’ve exhausted their funds or no longer enjoy the work they were doing previously. Unfortunately, there are probably more of these types than there are ideal English teachers in the country. Though I’ve taught and counseled kids before, I didn’t consider myself a ‘teacher’ until I’d taught for a year and figured a lot of things out.
There is a big difference between someone that is qualified to teach English and someone that isn’t. Thais expect you to already know how to teach them. They are paying for it – or, their parents are, and they expect to be taught in a way that programs their Thai brains to read, write and speak English as well as you!
As little as a decade ago Thailand was filled with English ‘teachers’ that didn’t have any right to call themselves teachers of English at all. Recently there have been some changes to increase the base-level requirements for English teachers in government schools. Yet there is still a large group of expats teaching that have no bachelors degree in anything, no formal teaching training, no TEFL course, and no real desire to learn techniques that will enable them to teach their Thai students more effectively.
I’ve met expats from Germany, Ireland, France, Italy, and even the UK that I couldn’t understand for the life of me. These acquaintances were either teachers or teacher applicants. If your fellow native English speakers can’t understand you fully, completely, perfectly, then how in the world are you going to teach Thais to speak a language you can’t communicate effectively with?
Some from the UK are squirming in your seats right now. I understand. What I’m speaking about in particular are those wannabe teachers from areas of the UK which have a strong regional dialect (accent) that they are either completely unaware of, or just don’t care to work on and reduce, or eliminate altogether.
There are regions of America whose residents also have strong dialects, and that shouldn’t teach Thais either. I’ve not met any such people here in Thailand, so, I didn’t mention them. You can rest assured, they’re here too!
“An English speaker does not a teacher make.”
The ability to teach English goes well beyond pronunciation and grammar usage. The motivation to teach, the motivation to get the message across to the students sitting in front of you counts strongly as well. If you’re not motivated to teach your students – do everyone a favor and don’t bother coming to Thailand to teach. Thailand needs teachers, badly, but not unmotivated teachers. There are already too many of those here.
There are many reasons foreigners choose to teach in Thailand. The majority of English teachers arriving from western countries are male. There are many more female students of English than there are male. Coincidence?
Perhaps it is, but the truth is there is a whole group of male teachers that are here for the good times – whether they’re dating their students or not. Some choose Thailand so they can enjoy retirement at a higher standard of living than they could enjoy in their home country. Some expats come in a misguided attempt to relive their teens. Others actually do relive their teens! Some are alcoholics in their home country and come here to do more of the same. Everyone seems to be smoking pot. Others are addicted to coke, heroin, crystal meth (yaba), or other wickedness and are able to find it cheaper in Thailand.
Teachers in Thailand are accorded a level of respect that is quite high compared to those in other occupations. They enjoy some small perks. During vehicle police checks when I showed my teacher card, I’d invariably be let through the checkpoint with, “bpy, bpy!” (Go, go!) When I visited national parks and was asked to pay the tourist rate I’d pull out my teacher card and explain that I teach in town and usually I only pay the Thai rate. That worked 90% of the time, which was enough for me. I never expected it to work at all!
As a result of teachers’ high status in Thai society they aren’t subject to direct criticism often. That is unless the teacher is really screwing up horribly. I mentioned briefly my attempt at a military dictatorship in the classroom earlier on – and I was subject to one of these meetings between students, myself, and Thai staff from the English program. I didn’t know how to teach Thai teens in the classroom when I first arrived. I was as clueless as you are now. Over time I came up with a system that worked, and I’ll explain it later in this book.
Teachers in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and other Asian countries are probably more likely to be taken advantage of in some way during their teaching contract. That might be because Thailand needs teachers more than these countries do.
There will be things your Thai supervisor will try to slip by you, but probably not something major. Usually, you can refuse to do what is asked of you if it’s beyond the call of duty. You’re always free to walk if the contract conflicts with what’s being asked of you. Almost nothing is a deal-breaker in your teaching contract, so, read it and cross out copious amounts of nonsense to whittle it down to a contract that makes sense from your perspective. Thais do have recourse if you sign without changing it and later choose not to honor the contract – but, they rarely ever take a foreigner to court over a teaching contract.
Thai teachers are very flexible and will usually do whatever is asked of them, over and over, to the point where it is quite ridiculous. Still the Thai teachers won’t question what is asked of them.
Thais working in Bangkok often slave an inhumane number of hours for their Thai employers. I’m not just speaking of teachers, but employment in Bangkok appears to require undying dedication and love for the company and all the company needs – regardless of what it does to the individual Thai working there.
Self-sacrifice is the norm in Thai society. Sacrificing for the good of the society, the smooth running of society is quite necessary. Quite revered. Quite expected.
was a quick overview and touched on some important topics. Let’s dive right
Before Leaving Home
Before you arrive in Thailand there are a number of things you’ll want to do.
One thing you may want to be careful of is not burning all your bridges before you leave. You may well arrive in Thailand, teach for 4-5 months (or weeks!) and decide you and your dog Toto need to get right back to Kansas because you can’t stand Thailand for even one more term.
That happens. I’ve seen a couple of teachers turn pale after a term and head home or to other parts of Asia. I think it depends a great deal where you choose to go. If the school and/or city you choose is a bad match for you – you won’t have a good experience. This guide will help you choose a region of Thailand to live and a school to teach at that is a good match for what you’re hoping to experience. I really hope you have a good experience here and stay on to teach for a few years or more.
Remember then, you might want to keep some doors open at home when if, by chance, it all falls apart in Thailand and you need to return home. At least stay on good terms with your family so if you return you can grab a couch for a couple of months if need be.
If you’re planning on teaching in the government school system you’ll need to get a police check from your home country and Thailand. This is covered in detail later.
How Much Cash to Save for Thailand?
I brought $3,000.00 USD with me when I first arrived in Thailand. A couple of months later I brought another $2,000.00. I spent it all within the first 4 months here. I was staying in Patong Beach and left 2-3 days before the tsunami devastated the beach I used to walk every morning. I was quite stressed out when I arrived and needed to breathe, among other things. I don’t remember having such an amazing time that spending $5,000 was nothing, but it sure went fast!
How much should you bring then? I’d say $1,000 for every month you’re here – minimum. You should also have some kind of reserve in case you are robbed by a Thai or foreigner. This happens often to men and women visitors and expats alike. I’ve been robbed at the villa where I stay. Most foreigners I know have had their residence robbed, pockets picked, or they’ve been the victim of a scam. Personally, I lost over 250,000 THB to a well-orchestrated Thai scam. That sordid story is in my autobiography – which is written already, but will remain unpublished until I leave the country!
If you arrive at the right time to secure a teaching job – March, April, May then you might be only two to four months without a job. Government schools start classes in May after a two-month break. Many foreigners stop after their one year contract is over in March, thinking the grass is greener. It usually isn’t, but that doesn’t stop the exodus from nearly every school in the nation as all the foreign teachers head off in search of their next year-long position. At least it used to be that way. Now that the teaching requirements have been tightened up and it’s more difficult to keep switching schools at whim, there seems to be more staying on at the same school than there was even just three years ago.
If you arrive in the country at the wrong time it might take you 10 months to a year before you nail down a teaching contract, depending on how particular you are. There are always jobs – and you could arrive yesterday and start today somewhere – but, most of us want to choose the cushy positions in the ideal locations. This will take some time. Plan to arrive in March of the year and you should be fine. You’ll have enough time to check out a couple of areas and decide which town you want to live in before deciding on a school.
Visas – getting the longest possible at the embassy in your home country
There is no telling what the visa situation is going to be when you read this book. In the past, the prevailing wisdom said that you should obtain a 90-day visa from the embassy while in your home country. That way, when you came to Thailand you could renew those 90-day visas over and over and it would cut down on the time you spend running around “border-hopping’ as we call it.
The Thai government has been changing the visa requirements lately. Currently, if you arrive in Thailand by air you can receive a 30-day visa. If you arrive by land you’ll only receive a 15-day visa.
If you enter Thailand on a tourist visa and then later try to get a non-immigrant b visa which you will need for teaching, the immigration office at whatever checkpoint you’re trying to re-enter Thailand at might balk and turn you away.
Why? You entered the country as a tourist – and misstated your intentions about why you were in Thailand. What you were really coming in the first time for – was to teach!
So, the teaching community has been thrown for a loop there. Another few changes have been the legalization of teachers – the teacher licenses, so to speak. For a while, there has been a “culture course” requirement for teachers in government institutions. There are now police background checks that need to be done in your own home country and Thailand and you won’t be able to teach legally at a government school without them.
state of things is quite a bit up in the air with many teachers reporting
different requirements based on where they teach and where they do their border
runs to get their visas. To stay abreast of the most recent policies and direct
experience of teachers trying to become legal teachers, head over to the
Ajarn.com forum to see what the latest fiasco might be about.
Some say that appearance is everything in Thailand. This, to me is a true statement. Appearance seems to be the number one consideration in Thai society.
I’ve covered a bit about the visual appearance of a person and how they dress. But, appearance covers behavior and all action within the society as well. Thais, upon meeting strangers, like members of any culture form an idea about the person on many levels. What they wear, how they act, if they speak politely… all of these are important considerations to Thais.
Thai society is built on the idea that fluidity, seamlessness, is the ideal way to facilitate social interaction and, indeed, keep everyone smiling and happy. At least smiling and happy on the outside. Thais revere other Thais and foreigners that can keep the smooth, unquestioned, interactions going – without confrontation or someone showing anger at someone else.
Thais would much rather gloss over confrontation, keep everyone smiling, and move on.
Thai culture is different from your culture and mine. It’s completely different. Sometimes I think it’s as different from American culture as it could possibly be. Everything seems to be different – but especially the basics.
The entire Thai culture exists in a state of what you see is not what is true, but, it’s what you get. I’m not making it clear yet, on purpose. It took a couple of years before it started to become clear to me. I’d think I was figuring it out and then bam – something would throw me off. A master’s degree in counseling psychology is worthless when trying to dissect Thai culture and the differences from American culture. A sociologist must really enjoy living here and figuring it all out. I did too – it just took me longer.
American culture, and many cultures of the west are based on the idea, at least in part, that truth should be made public. Bullshit (BS) doesn’t fly very well or very high in the states. Anyone trying to fly BS gets called on it – and loses the game.
American society exists at this very basic level, with truth as king – objective truth when it can be discerned. We’re constantly testing our friends, co-workers and strangers to find out – are they trying to fly BS? We constantly ask each other, “Are you sure about that?”
But in Thailand, the BS flies – and flies high. They’ll all salute it too. Even when two people arguing back and forth both know it’s BS – the BS still flies.
So, what should you do when you move to Thailand? You should salute the high-flying BS too if you’re going about assimilating into their society! Yes, I understand your discomfort – believe me.
You know the phrase, “Money talks and BS walks.” – yes? Well, how in the world can BS talk too?
Thai culture is built around a couple of basic things… two really.
1. Everyone is having a good time, is relaxed, unstressed, and must look like they are.
2. Thai Face – which will be explained next chapter.
To Thais, the most important part of social interaction is that life and social interactions are going smoothly. The entire society subscribes to this way of life – keeping the smooth flow of harmony going. Regardless of what is underneath, in one’s mind and emotions, one must look like all is well and things are going smoothly.
Emotions have no part in public Thai society, and they are very rarely displayed. Of course, eventually, someone loses it and blows a gasket. That’s when people start dying. Again, more about that in the Thai face section.
So, how does a whole society of 65 million keep the illusion of harmony going?
Everyone’s playing the game – so, it works quite well. When someone doesn’t play the game he or she is ostracized and nobody likes to be around that person. It’s kind of like the group of Christians that is all playing the Christian game… when one of their tribe turns free-thinker and stops playing the game – how long does he have a nice cozy spot in the group? Not long. Almost all Thais – even bad Thais, are always playing the game.
I’ve met Thai guys in the mafia, and other hard-asses that displayed their anger and pride, and ego a lot more than other, regular Thais did. But, none of them was ever as “rude” as the average foreigner visiting Patong beach or Pattaya. Foreigners are seen as crude, unpolished, and not easy to interact with. We’re not playing their game. To foreigners – truth talks and BS gets called as soon as possible and nothing else matters except clearing up the BS. Thais don’t know how to deal with that – it’s too confrontational.
In Thai society, they’ll lie outright. Consistently. Constantly. That is part of their society. Is it wrong? Heck no – not to them, in some cases it’s actually the highest ‘right’. It’s how their culture developed. They are polite to each other and show respect for each other, even when the underlying emotions and ideas are contrary to that. Even when the facts are contrary to that.
A Thai is held in very high esteem when wrongs can continually be overlooked and the smooth flow of harmony is kept going along in all sorts of different social situations.
The phrase, “Mai pen rai” is used often by Thais to diffuse a situation that is not worth confronting anyone over or not worth causing anyone to lose face over. Often, foreigners are amazed at what Thais say “mai pen rai” to. We’re dumbfounded. We can’t say the same in many of the same situations because we want it clarified and un-BS’ed.
So, Thais will lie – to your face and they’re doing it not because they don’t like you or don’t respect you. They may have been caught red-handed. They will lie as long as they are breathing air – without ever admitting something is wrong.
Most Thai will lie to save someone else, or save themselves. Most Thais will lie about everything and anything that might cause someone (or themselves) a loss of “face”. Again, we’ll cover Thai Face in the next chapter as thoroughly as we can.
As you’ve already learned, Thai culture is very unique. It is important to understand some of the other basic differences between Thailand and your home country before arriving like how to behave properly and politely. Knowing these things will increase the chances that your trip to Thailand will be as enjoyable and safe as it possibly can be.
Probably you’re asking yourself if I’ve gone off the deep-end about generalizing Thais’ behavior as a group. Maybe that’s so. Let’s hope you come up with some other, better explanation after you’ve been living in Thailand for a while. Please share it if you do!
The Major Thai Culture Tips
- His Majesty the King, and The Royal Family – Do take care not to mention anything negative about any member of the Thai Royal Family as Thais love and adore them. There are harsh penalties for les majeste and there are foreigners in Thai jails at this moment because they did something considered disrespectful in this regard. Be very careful about your speech and other behavior toward this most important subject. Thailand’s King is on all the money. Be respectful of all images of His Majesty the King!
- Standing during the Thai national anthem – Do stand still and quiet like everybody else during the playing of the Thai national anthem. They play it before all the movies in the cinema and at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily in various places. Rule of thumb, if everyone is standing quietly – you should be too.
- Thai Money – has images of the current and past kings. Try not to drop money, ever. Don’t scrunch up your money into a mess. Don’t, under any circumstances do as I did during my first night in Thailand… fold your money up and put it in your shoe. Thais will have fits over it, you could possibly be fighting over it if things went horribly wrong. Postage stamps also have His Majesty and other Royal Family members featured, stamps must always be placed upright on the envelope, not sideways or upside down.
- Writing about HM the King and Royal Family – It should go without saying that you shouldn’t write anything remotely negative about the Royal Family inside or outside Thailand. An Australian writer was arrested on his arrival in Thailand for having printed a book while in Australia that had a couple of sentences the Thais didn’t agree with. He sold seven books in total. He was released recently but did spend some time in jail over it.
- Politics – The population is split considerably about what group is best to rule their nation. Currently, there are demonstrations, sometimes violent, in protest to the current ruling party. Stay away from discussions of political nature and don’t give your opinion if asked about it. Let Thais work the issue out for themselves, don’t be vocal about your opinion on how corrupt government, police, military and anyone else seems to be.
- Raising Your Voice – Thais go to exceptional lengths to keep smiling even when they’re boiling inside. Thailand is often referred to as the “land of smiles”. The reason for this is that Thais seem to be able to smile regardless of the situation. In Thai culture, it is more polite and more gracious to smile and overlook offenses and differences of opinion with smiles instead of harsh words. In fact, the only time harsh words are spoken is during a physical fight or a verbal argument that will quickly lead to a physical fight. When Thais blow up emotionally it gets physical and sometimes deadly very quickly. Don’t raise your voice to anyone, regardless what the issue. If you’re going to lose a large sum of money because of the issue take it up with the tourist police, don’t attempt to resolve it with screaming if it looks like you’re getting nowhere rationalizing.
- Physical Altercations – Thais fight in groups. They will all join in to fight you if you choose to fight a Thai. You can’t win. You and three other guys cannot win against twenty or thirty Thai men. Be very careful not to provoke Thais to anger because your first hint that you might have gone over the edge is a bottle or stick to the back of your head. When looked at from the big perspective very few foreigners have problems of this nature in Thailand, but it’s worth saying something about because a couple of hundred foreigners in recent years have either died or suffered serious injuries. Recently the UK labeled Thailand the most dangerous place for its citizens to visit. More people from the UK die in Thailand on average than any other vacation destination.
- Thai Business Practices – Little may be as frustrating as Thai business policies, especially for the long-term visitor. Often they make little sense to the western mind. Read on…
- Return Policy – There isn’t one. Thai business is fascinating in this regard. In the USA we have a return policy to help the buyer avoid being sold bad products by sellers. Thailand does not. If you buy a CD-ROM that doesn’t work you will likely not get your money back. If you buy a mobile phone that you don’t want to keep and you want to just exchange it – the store may not even have an exchange policy. Be absolutely sure what you’re buying works. Test it before you leave the store. This way you’ll cut down on problems later. Most places will show you an item is in working condition if you ask. If they won’t, don’t buy it there.
- Try before you buy – usually, there exists no such practice. You may not be able to try a bicycle, motorbike or automobile before you buy it. That’s Thai style. It’s frustrating, but you probably won’t get far if you push for it. Or you might – I’ve talked stores into letting me test a motorbike and bicycle after asking repeatedly, but some held fast to their policy of not letting me try before I bought.
- Bartering – It’s a normal part of the Thai shopping experience to barter on price. Feel free to try to get the price you want. Try hard not to get upset if you fail. Keep in mind Thais usually want to receive as much money as possible today and they don’t value the long-term or repeat customer as we do in the west.
General Social Interactions
In the northeast and other traditional areas, small towns especially it is not acceptable behavior to touch your significant other in public. If you do so you and your partner will be talked about as if you found each other in the prostitution districts of Pattaya. In Pattaya, Patong, and other areas known for catering to the sex-tourist touching your partner in public is rather OK. At least it’s done often and there’s not such a big issue about it. Please don’t force a Thai person to behave according to your western standards when in their home town. It will cause a real loss of face for them and their family as it will be the talk of the town.
Touching someone on the head
Even a child, unless you are a good friend, is something that shouldn’t be done. The head is the most respected part of the body and it’s disrespectful to touch anyone there.
The feet are the dirtiest part of the body and even pointing your feet at someone while seated or laying down might be taken as a sign of disrespect similar to westerners showing the middle finger. Refrain from this! Also be careful not to point your feet in the general direction of a Buddha image or statue, a monk, or any image or representation of the Royal Family members.
Bare feet inside the home
Always remove your shoes before entering anyone’s home and also before entering a business if you notice shoes outside the door.
Thai men staring
Thai men and women stare at foreigners a lot, especially in smaller cities where they don’t see many tourists. Thais do not stare at you for malevolent reasons. As a male, you may feel like someone is confronting you by staring at you. If you smile at the Thai person he or she will likely laugh embarrassed that you caught them staring. They stare out of sincere interest, not because they mean you harm. Unless you did something horrible, and then you’ll probably know why the person is staring.
Wai-ing someone older than you when you meet is very important in the northeast and you will gain a lot of face if you learn how to do it correctly and when to do it. Ask a Thai teacher to show you the correct way to wai as it will endear you to the Thai people you interact with during your stay.
Blowing your nose
Thais don’t blow their nose loudly. Usually, they don’t blow at all. They wipe. Blowing your nose loudly is quite obnoxious to Thais and you’ll not gain any friends for it.
Using a toothpick
Cover your mouth with one hand and pick with the toothpick with your other hand. It’s rude in Thailand to pick your teeth without covering the process so others can’t see it.
Eating your food
Thais eat primarily with a spoon. They eat nearly everything with a spoon in the right hand and fork in the left pushing food onto the spoon, whether it makes sense or not. If you want to fit in you’ll adopt this same style.
If you know a little bit of Thai you should always be adding “krup” if you’re a male, or “ka” if you’re a female to the end of everything you say. Thais love it when foreigners care enough to be polite when they speak Thai. You will likely get many compliments if you speak this way. You won’t be thought of that well if you don’t use it.
Accepting something from a Thai
If you are offered a drink from a Thai man, you probably should accept. It doesn’t matter if you don’t drink at all – you probably should accept because the person offering you the drink is probably trying to build face among his friends or those watching. If you turn him down, face is lost. Not a good thing! Especially during Songkran (Thai New Year) or other situations where the Thais are already drunk, it’s a really good idea to accept a drink and, if you don’t want to drink continuously with them – thank them profusely and move on.
These cultural tips should be enough to help you get through your stay in Thailand without incident. If in doubt, defer to the Thais as you’re a guest in their country. Often, visitors think they are right in bringing their own cultural practices to Thailand and trying to insist Thais follow them. It’s a losing proposition and one that will continually frustrate you until you act as the Thais do during your stay in their country.
Thais’ have LITTLE Ego…
Thais almost never use the word I. Whether they are speaking English or Thai – the word “I”, “me” is nearly absent from their vocabulary.
In the few years that I’ve known my Thai girlfriend, I have ONLY heard her say “I” when I asked her directly if she wanted something. That is it. She never says, “I” – ever without a direct question asking her. She never voices her opinions or wants or needs to me if they are frivolous or not important. While living in American I couldn’t even count the number of times I used the “I” pronoun in one day. When I came here – I started to notice it because none of the Thais were doing it!
I think the lack of use of the pronoun is related to the Buddhist view of non-attachment to ideas; things; issues; points of view; emotions; or anything. If one say’s “I” it is reinforcing the idea that one is separate from the rest of the world. That one is an entity that is separate. Same thing if one says, “mine”. It reinforces the ego or the self as a separate thing.
Thais Smile – a Lot!
Thailand is known as the land of smiles (LOS) to many visitors and expats – why is that? Are Thais that happy?
The answer is complex, but there are a couple of main points worth mentioning about why Thais always seem to be smiling.
As I said, in the west, we place a high value on outright truth in nearly all circumstances. Our society is built around this type of social interaction. If someone is caught lying or saying something untrue in the slightest – that person is wrong and the majority will side with those telling the truth – the objective, and sometimes hurtful, truth.
In Thailand it’s much different – the truth can hurt too much. Thais want uncomfortable situations – public confrontation, smoothed over. Keeping the flow going and people smiling is in the interests of all Thais and that is what they place the highest value on.
What that means is, what westerners see as lying – white lies and bold lies… even completely fabricated stories that cover the truth that hurts – is a way of life here.
Lying is OK when it keeps the flow of harmony going. It’s more than OK – it’s expected. As part of this – Thais have learned to smile in the face of adversity as well as, of course, smiling when they’re happy and things are going well. If you smiled when you were pissed off and happy you’d be smiling a lot too – yes?
On the other hand – Thais are very often – happy. The culture is pretty easy going and the real bulk of problems occur when someone is drunk.
A “wai” is a bowed greeting some Thais do to each other – and sometimes to foreigners.
Who should you wai and why?
There is a regional component to tradition and wai-ing others. In the northeast – Isaan region, it is used VERY often and is expected that you know when to wai. Ask an older Thai woman to teach you how to wai. In other places, it’s hardly in use at all. In the south where there are many Muslims, you don’t wai because most of them won’t do it back. They see it as a Buddhist gesture. Some will return your wai as a habit just to make you feel better.
Wai older Buddhist people – over 70 absolutely, all the time. You wai them first. They probably won’t wai you, they’re too tired of all that – but, you should.
When someone wais you – you are to wai back in all cases, except with school children you can shake your head at them and that’s enough. Teens expect it back.
Wai the relatives of your girlfriend/boyfriend or close friends or co-workers. When Thais know each other closely they are more likely to keep a level of respect between them.
Never under any circumstances, if you are within the city limits of Pattaya – should you wai anyone. Heh-heh. It’s almost hilarious to watch people wai bar girls, bartenders, and their tuk-tuk drivers in Pattaya, Patong, Patpong, etc. They won’t wai you first – or any westerner, so you don’t have to worry about it. If someone wais you in Pattaya you really should give them one back, but it won’t happen too often unless you’re considered a friend.
Wai police and make them feel good. Really good.
Wai someone that is about to beat you senseless – if you get the chance before they start. It might take the steam out of them. Learn to say “sorry”, “Kahrtold Krup” over and over and wai them – it’s hard for a Thai to ignore that and, it might be the only option you have.
I won’t attempt to teach you the proper way to wai. Find a teacher from Isaan, as they really know the correct way to do it. When you do it the right way it melts the Thai people’s hearts. Not joking.